Category Archives: discipleship

Spiritual Angioplasty

I came into this week thinking it would be a normal one. But as I sit here on my couch this morning, I feel like the Lord has begun to perform the equivalent of an angioplasty in my soul.

When arteries are clogged due to the slow build up of cholesterol (whether inherited, induced by habit, or the common combination of both), doctors often perform an angioplasty.  A small catheter is placed into the artery and then a ballooning technique is used to stretch and reopen the artery so that more blood can flow through it.

If you asked me even on Monday if I was aware of racism in the world and its roots in my own heart, I would have said yes and been honest in saying so; however, after a week of hard conversations and convicting moments with the Lord, I feel like I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with multiple clogged arteries of the soul.

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I didn’t realize how little I have listened to my friends who are people of color or even asked about their experiences with racism. I have been open to conversations, but I have not initiated them; rather, I have expected them to come to me and open up about hard things. Even that exposes a position of power in my heart that I did not realize I have had.  This spiritual artery needs some unclogging.

I have failed to address the significant shaping power of culture in spiritual development and discipleship. As one who loves to address family of origin with those I disciple, I have largely missed the culture of origin level in discipleship. As such, I have unintentionally shown my disciples that I am interested in most of their lives, but not all of it. This spiritual artery needs some ballooning.

I have been tempted to be defensive, to point out all the ways that I have loved and engaged in the lives of my friends of color.  I felt misread and wrongly judged and overly generalized into a lump stereotype. Until I realized that those exact feelings are only a tiny sliver of what my friends of color have been experiencing daily for most of their lives. Another clogged artery.

If am honest, I sat down to meet with the Lord this morning defeated and exhausted, exposed and sore. Until I remembered that it His great love for and commitment to me and His bride that He would appoint for me a spiritual angioplasty (or a series of them).

He won’t leave well enough alone (Philippians 1:6). He will not settle for anything less than Christ-likeness in His children (Galatians 4:19). He will not leave our soul’s arteries clogged with even unintentional narrow-mindedness and partially working flow of the Spirit. He will look right through us with His gently exposing gaze and will flag every place where the flow of His Spirit through us is clogged or limited.

He will painfully insert His Word into us and will stretch us in ways that feel uncomfortable (Hebrews 4:12-13). He will make space in us to contain love for His entire body. And all of this is for our good, the good of the body, and the good of the world and His glory.

I want a heart that fully functions. I want a heart that is unclogged and wide open, not constricted and strained. I want to look like my Father whose heart is expansive; I want to be shaped to be like the Son whose blood was literally poured out for the world. This will only happen by the surgical expertise of the Holy Spirit within me. While He is always ready to do His healing work, He does not force or coerce. He allows circumstances that reveal just how clogged our hearts have become. He waits for consent and readiness in His patients.

Please be tender with the hearts of those around you. Surgeries, both minor and major, are happening all around you.

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire”

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Meanwhile in Midian: The Purpose of the Messy Middle

It’s about to be graduation season where we celebrate beginnings with their vague hope and endings with their celebratory finality. I love watching the pictures of proud families and excited soon-to-be high school and college students. We rightly highlight beginnings and endings, but we would do well to also remember that life consists mostly of the messy middle.

The first image that usually comes to mind when most people hear the name Moses is a Prince-of-Egypt-like bearded man holding up a staff and parting the Red Sea. This is the memorable Moses, the heroic Moses, the deliverer Moses. While this image is beautiful, I find myself most drawn to the Midian Moses, the Moses of the middle years.

I imagine the young Moses as having a strong sense of “manifest destiny” (or shall we say “manifest providence?”). After all, he was miraculously saved from sure death when he was drawn out of the Nile by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter. He was beautiful in appearance; he was educated by the finest tutors in Egypt; he was clearly set apart.

He knew God had plans for his life, and I can imagine him eager to leave his mark. But life took a series of turns that he did not anticipate, culminating in his fleeing for his life from his home.  Thus, Moses, God’s chosen instrument and one with whom God would one day speak face-to-face, found himself in Midian.

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I imagine Moses’ years in Midian were spent swinging between contentment and confusion.

Exodus 2:21 says that Moses was willing to dwell in Midian. The Hebrew word translated willing is “yaal” and literally means to yield, to be content, to be pleased.”  The Lord provided him a wife in Zipporah and a father figure in Jethro. Thus, Moses was content to dwell for decades, living as a common shepherd, husband and father. Contentment.

Yet, I wonder if Moses ever had days when he felt terribly confused at the way his life was panning out. Did he ever have a burning desire for more? Did he long to be used by God to help the Hebrew people with whom his heart was knit? I imagine him wandering through the vast wilderness with his flock asking, “Was this really what God rescued me for? Family and sheep are wonderful, but I feel as if I were wired for more.” Confusion.

In all those years of shepherding and living a quietly faithful life, God knew something that Moses didn’t: Moses needed Midian as much as the Hebrews needed deliverance.

Moses needed to mature, to have his desires and gifts refined. He needed the mundane, the simple and the small to whittle away at his pride and self-reliance. I imagine that everyday of those decades, God was hand-crafting him to be an instrument that was able to hear and to respond to His voice.

The pre-Midian Moses was strong, self-confident, ready to act as a deliverer for the Hebrew people in his time and his way. The post-Midian Moses had learned to take his sandals off before a holy God, had learned a healthy humility that truly questioned whether God could use him.

Midian made Moses.

We all need Midians. We need secret seasons of preparation and identity-forging in which we learn to trust in God’s power and not our own.

For some Midian looks like an extended season of singleness that was neither anticipated nor welcomed. In these years, the God-planted and good desires for marriage and parenting are rounded out and refined. For others Midian looks like unemployment or underemployment where God-given, God-pleasing talents are put on the back burner for a season. There are a myriad of Midians, but they share this in common: they are appointed by an all-wise, all-loving Father and will not last forever (though it often feels like they will).

Sometimes it seems that everyone else’s lives seem to be falling into place or moving forward in the fast lane while we sit in Midian, swinging between contentment and confusion.

Know this: the same God that planted desires deeply within you plans to fulfill them in His time and in His way. Meanwhile, in Midian, He is with you, refining you, refreshing you, reminding you of His truth.

I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6. 

The Power of a Visit

I thought I knew what a visit was until the Lord allowed me to make some Afghan friends. I visit with friends over coffee and have been to plenty of house-warming parties. Yet, I clearly had no idea of the power of true visiting. My Afghan friends consider anything less than three hours a short visit, and when they are with you, there is nothing else going on in the world but you and the visit. Appointments can be skipped, errands rescheduled, and work left undone when a friend over to visit and drink tea from a clear-glass cup.

My American-ness shows in my typical approach to visits: clear purpose, clear timeline, clear boundaries. But God has been teaching me so much through the Afghan approach to visiting. And, come to find out, this concept of God visiting his people is laced throughout the entirety of the Scriptures.

The God who Visits His people

The Hebrew word paqad, often translated as visit, shows up consistently throughout the Torah, speaking of God and his desire to visit with his people.

In Psalm 8, the writer exclaims, “What is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you care for him?” A more literal translation here would be, “What is the son of man that you would visit him?” (Psalm 8:4).

In Genesis 21, when God fulfilled his long-in-coming promise to Sarah for a child, the writer records, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised (Genesis 21:1).

Before Joseph dies, as he looks back over his painful and eventful life, he leaves his brothers with the promise, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…God will surely visit you” (Genesis 50:24 & 25).

When God comes to Moses to appoint him to lead his people out of slavery (in fulfillment of the aforementioned promise), he uses the same visiting language. God tells him, “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers…has appeared to me saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt”.'” (Exodus 3:16-17). The word observed is once again pagad: “to visit.”

Soon after, when Moses had obeyed, the writer of Genesis records, “And the people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Genesis 4:31).

This seems to be the appropriate response to the realization that the God who made the universe would visit us, seeing us and meeting us where we are: we bow our heads and worship.

Christ’s Visit with Us

All these hints at a God who longs to visit his people come to a culmination in the person of Christ who visited his people quite literally by tabernacling among them as a person. He visited with his creation for 33 years. And while he visited the earth, he made it a habit to visit with people: to meet them where they were and invite them into relationship with him.

One particular instance brings this concept home, and it is only recorded by Luke, who seemed to have a particular heart for the outcast and the sinner. In the story of Zaccheus, we see God’s desire to visit his people showcased in all of its stunning and shocking beauty.

Zaccheus was a Jew who worked on the inside with the Roman powers who were occupying Israel. He lined his pockets while his own people starved, and as such, he was not often welcomed or celebrated. His being rich did not change his diminutive physical stature, so he climbed a tree to see what was going on with this Jesus fella. You likely know the story (Luke 19:1-9).

Jesus sees him, names him, and invites himself over to his house in a gesture that would have shocked both Jew and Roman alike. As if the invitation itself were not enough, the timing of the visit underscores the nature of our God. This encounter took place in the last week of Jesus’s life. He had set his face like flint toward Jerusalem. To say he had a bit on his mind would be the understatement of the century. However, he made time for a visit with a notorious sinner.

An Open Invitation

Visits are costly. They require time which is quite the commodity in our Amazon age. They require proximity and presence in an age where we can far more easily send a package that will arrive in an hour or two. They require flexibility and response. When I think of the reality of God himself wanting to visit with me daily, I am blown away. Yet, God freely and continually offers the gift of his presence (Hebrews 4:14-16). Even though he maintains the universe and upholds matter, he still wants to hear about the details of my day. Such a reality leaves my mouth echoing the psalmist, saying, “What is man that you are mindful of him?”

May the Lord visit with you today. And may his visit with you change the way you visit with those all around you!

Blade by Blade: Painting the World Blue

Red and blue. Progressive and traditional. These words have become battle lines and rallying cries in our  alarmingly divided nation. Yet, in the midst of this battle, the Church must stay the course by sticking to the mission entrusted to her by her Head (even and especially in the midst of a culture that rushes to drop tradition in lieu of a notion of progress).

The Church should always be traditional, so much as she should be looking back to measure herself against the standard that the Word of God, passed down the ages, has set for her.

Our culture, our hearts always search for the shiny and new. The same seems to be true of the Church. We love conferences on the “new” theology, the “new” strategy, the “new” perspective.

The obsession with the “new” is nothing new. Jeremiah cried out, on behalf of God, to God’s people, “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace…Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'” (Jeremiah 6:14 & 16)

I am not saying the Chuch ought to stick with tradition merely for the sake of tradition, as we all know that the Church is a beloved but broken bride and has been since her inception. However, I am crying out, like Jeremiah, that tradition, insofar as it is lined up with the standard of God’s word, deserves a weighted vote. “The democracy of the dead,” as Chesterton calls tradition, merits a sound hearing.

The Church should always be progressive, so much as she should be looking ahead and moving closer to the vision set before her in the Word of God. Here, I am using progressive in the truest sense of the term. Christ’s bride and body here on earth should always be moving closer and closer to the New Jerusalem, to the picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth so artfully captured by the captured John, imprisoned on Patmos and recording Revelation.

G. K. Chesterton addressed the wrong notion of progress present in his England in Orthodoxy. As usual, his assessment applies today.

“We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision…We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.”

The mark of true brilliance is the ability to bring thoughts from the highest shelves of human thinking down to the lower shelves in such a way that the average man can access and understand them.  G. K. Chesterton shows his brilliance by illustrating this wrong idea of progress in the example below.

“Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard, the high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own perspective) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favorite color every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away; there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner.”

Top-class hockey on world-class grass bluegrass RS1932221-23718

If Christ told the Church her purpose was to proclaim the gospel and the Word and the supremacy of Christ in all arenas of life, then we must stay the course. Watching the gospel advance soul to soul is painstaking work. Blade by blade, we are to be painting the world blue.  The work is slow and far from sexy. It seems old-fashioned in such a technicolor world. In light of these realities, one can understand how tempting it would be to alter the vision of the Church to something simpler, quicker, more attainable, to start painting the blades of grass another color.

But we must be the traditional, progressive Church. We need to glance back and glance ahead from time to time, but our gaze must be on our bride-groom, Christ. And blade by blade, we must work to see His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

The new thing is the old thing with new people.

Precious & Painful Death

When the Lord speaks, a sentence can feed and fuel a soul. This morning in the corporate reading of Scripture, a seemingly random verse jumped out, arrested my attention, and comforted my soul.

“Truly, truly I say t o you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18–19).

“By what kind of death he was to glorify God.” In some ways, it seems like a throwaway phrase. After all, it is a parenthetical statement John added to aide the reader. But every word of God drips with soul-deep meaning.

The same God who had directed his steps all this life would direct his steps in death. The God who had given him a portion in life appointed for him a specific death, tailor-made for the glory of God and Peter’s good.

Peter’s first hints at the death apportioned for him didn’t paint a hopeful picture. Rather, Jesus eased him into the grim reality of an approaching martyr’s death. But Peter is not the same Peter whose flesh raised up against the idea of redemptive suffering in Matthew 16. When Jesus initially shared his own coming suffering that would eventually lead to his death, Peter would have none of it.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him saying, “Far be it from you, Lord!” This shall never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22).

Stubborn though he was, Peter learned his lessons. What he balked at before the cross, he understood afterwards. His self-willed ways were giving way to deep dependence upon and trust in God’s ways.

If God would be glorified in Peter being led to cruel death, Peter would walk with confidence and calling toward that end. For he knew it was not the end, but the beginning of being fully reunited with his resurrected Lord forever. The same call that equipped him for life would equip him for death: “Follow me.”

Precious & Painful

Everything in culture tries to avoid death, yet it comes nonetheless. Sometimes death is sudden and shocking; other times it is a long, drawn out roller coaster of disease after diagnosis. For the past decade, my mother-in-law has done little else than care for my father-in-law who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. Death is an ever-approaching reality for him and thus for us who love him. The imagery Jesus gave Peter about his death is actually an apt description of what Appa’s last days (or decade) have looked like. A once strong, gregarious man now being dressed and led by many hands from bed to bathroom and back again. God is leading him where he would never have wanted to go.

A friend shared about her dear friend dying from ALS this week. She, too, had been led where no flesh wants to go. Another church member lost his father two weeks ago. A dear friends lost her husband to COVID over a year ago. The list goes on and on. In light of a growing list of deaths, the reality that God knows by what deaths his children will glorify him comforted my aching soul.

When friends lose a loved one, I try to send a beautiful floral handkerchief as a reminder of beauty amidst the brokenness and hope in the midst of hollowing loss. In the notes to these friends, I always share Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” While I always include it, it always give me pause when I write it. It feels so off. The death of his children is precious in the sight of the Lord?

But precious does not mean cute like the little porcelain figurines I collected as a child. The Hebrew word yaqar literally means “rare, splendid, costly, or weighty.” God does not take death lightly, but he also knows what (or rather whom) is on the other side. What is painful in our experience is precious in his.

As believers, we can trust that faithful daily dying will lead to faithful final breath. We, like Peter, need only to do one thing: keep following Jesus. For he knows by what deaths we will glorify God and he will enable us to meet death like a friend knowing that God’s presence awaits us on the other side.

When Death Comes for Me

When Death comes for me, 
Let there be little to take. 
Let all be given, entrusted
Into hands nothing can shake. 

When Death comes for me, 
Let me see him only as friend,
The mean doorway leading
To His presence without end. 

When Death comes for me, 
Let him find me already spent,
Poured out as living sacrifice
Laid down in delighted consent.

When Death comes for me, 
Let me remember whom I serve,
The One who conquered death
To give me love I don’t deserve. 

Imposition & Accommodation

We are an imposing people. When stepping into a culture, we tend to impose ourselves and our ways onto it. We impose our own agendas. We impose our own plans. We impose our blueprints. 

Some of this knack for imposition is commendable. After all, it allowed our forefathers to create a nation in a hostile landscape against all odds. It was the stuff that shaped the American Dream. However, this same tendency that raised our nation, also caused us to raze the culture of the native people who lived in this land long before us. 

In his essay “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry juxtaposes paths with roads. Since roads don’t typically hold my interest unless they result in an inconvenient flat tire, I was tempted to skim read over it; however, I am so glad that I stayed the course. The underlying principle he was delineating has been shaping my approach to God, His word, and His world this week. 

“A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity of movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape;  it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it…It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.”

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Far from trying to make us feel guilty about roads, Berry seems more to be prodding at our hearts’ need to impose itself on everything and everyone around us. 

I don’t think of myself as an imposing person. I tend to yield adequately to others, and I don’t even like to ask for ketchup at a restaurant, and; however, Berry’s words have had me running a magnifying glass over my motives and methods of being. Unfortunately, there is far more of a tendency to impose in me than I thought. 

This should not surprise me. After all, the first act of human betrayal against God was an imposition of human judgement and desire rather than an adoring accommodation to Divine judgement and desire. At Babel, humans sought to impose their plans on the earth. When God’s people were no longer content with their unseen ruler, they imposed upon God, demanding a king they could see. The Pharisees, the trained professional religious people of Jesus’s day, sought to impose their human traditions not only on the poor and vulnerable, but also on the God-man himself. 

It seems that our fallen human nature tends towards imposition. This bent is only reinforced when set in a culture of imposition. Our culture tells us to dream a big dream and then impose it on our lives, no matter the cost, no matter the resistance. While this might lead to short-term success, it eventually ends in ruin. For, as the Proverbs say, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12). 

Christ offers us another way: the way of accommodation. The one whose words created the world and whose planning parted the earth from the heavens and the sky from the sea, could have imposed himself on humanity. All power was his as rightful Creator and owner of all. Yet, that God chose to accommodate himself to our needs. Seeing that we were doomed to continue to impose our will over his own, He stepped into the world he had created. Though being in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or utilized, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2: 6-7). 

He accommodated his infinite self to the confines of Mary’s wombs. He replaced unlimited power with the limitations of mortal man. He knew hunger and heaviness, thirst and tiredness. When tempted by His longtime enemy to impose his ways and his power immediately, he chose the way of trusting accommodation the Father’s timetable and tactics (see Matthew 4:1-11). In the garden, his desire to live sought to impose itself, but he eventually bent his will to the way of his father which would end at Calvary. 

Looking out upon yet another calendaring, I am tempted to impose my will. To force my desires and to dig up enough grit to make the week do what I want it to do; however, I am praying that I choose the path of accommodation rather than the road of imposition. 

I want to hold the Father’s hand as we walk into a new week. I want to see what the Father has in store for each day and each week rather than start with my own agenda. I want to have my will bent to his rather than seeking to bend his to mine (which never turns out well, by the way). 

May we stay close to our Savior’s side and follow him in the path of accommodation this week. Happy trails to you, my friend!

 

Bemoaning Boredom

Communication is not what is spoken but what is heard. Throughout the day, there are about a billion things I say to my children. I am not sure what, if anything, gets through. There’s only one sure fire way to know what is actually being communicated to their little hearts and minds. Eavesdropping.

Every once in a while, while I am cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry or hiding in the bathroom, I’ll listen in on the boys conversations (we will talk about invasion of privacy when they can define the word invasion). They have some amazing pillow talk, those two older boys. Their conversations run the gamete: dragons, monsters, plans for inventions, talking about the field trips they will take in 8th grade the way that I talk about retirement.

The other day Eli was complaining of being bored, to which Tyus responded, “Mom wants us to be bored. Because when we are bored, we create new things and come up with new fun.”

In my shock, I may or may not have dropped the laundry I was folding. They are actually listening to me.

Today, while I was resting and reading and praying, the Lord told me that maybe I should listen to me, too.

Internally, I am better than my children at bemoaning boredom. Sure, I rarely walk up to the Lord and tug at His proverbial pant leg to whine, “I’m so bored. There is nothing to do.” But internally, I complain about the monotony of manning the same post day in and day out. I look around at everyone else’s toys and activities and determine that others received the better end of the deal. In my boredom, I mindlessly scroll through the Facebook feed or shop around at thrift stores or fantasize about getaways and vacations that involve quiet and sleep and take place anywhere but here.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, a European visitor to America,  made some observations about Americans that still ring true, at least in my own heart and home.

“Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more, he loves it; for the instability, instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.”

Guilty as charged.

Teaching Our Children to Embrace Boredom

The greatest temptation of the parent is to give our children what they want rather than what they need. My children, in their flesh want to be constantly busy with fun things, but they need to be busy with boring things like chores or just plain bored.

Boredom exposes their hearts and their idols. it shows gaps. As a momma, my reflexive response is to want to fill all gaps for them. But the gaps are the places where grace and the gospel leak into their lives. When they are not so full of what they want, they may begin to realize what they really need.

It is so challenging for me to let them sit in perceived lack, but such lack points us to our need for the constantly full One. Boredom forces them to look over all that they do have and use it more creatively. It reminds them that this earth is not our home and that we were made for more than personal fulfillment. These lessons are hard to swallow, but the sooner these truths sink in, the better they will be for the future.

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Embracing Boredom as Adults

I see it in my boys who claim boredom in the midst of bins of toys and in between exciting adventures and countless opportunities. I see it in my longing to start something new, do something different, visit someplace exotic. Boredom lies under the temptation to quit my post and find a greener pasture when life gets flat and days get long.

I often tell my boys, “Boredom is a gift. It teaches you to create and to play.”

Today God reminded me that, as His child, He thinks the same for me. He longs for more than my entertainment. He longs for me to be satisfied deeply in Him, not in changing circumstances.

In the monotony I deeply dread,  He gives me opportunity to dig deeper into His well for joy. The pleasures of HIs presence are far more substantial and lasting than the ephemeral pleasures I typically jump to as from rock to rock.

If I am honest, I look forward to bed time, I look forward to a haircut, I look forward to Starbucks coffee splurges. I look forward to the weekend, I look forward to vacation and adventures. I don’t look far enough.

The Lord reminded me ever-so-gently today that I need a longer hope, a longer vision. Psalm 130 is a good place for my soul to sit awhile.

I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning. Indeed, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is lovingkindness and with Him is abundant redemption. 

In a culture that is drowning in entertainment, we are a terribly bored and discontented people. Or at least I can speak for myself.

This week, instead of dreading the monotony, I long for the Lord to transform it, to invite me deeper into His ever-available abundance right where I am. I don’t want to quit my post. The Lord put me here, and He plans to show up. I just tend to be too busy chasing cheap satisfaction to notice His coming.

God Is Not (Only) Distant

Growing up, Bette Midler wrote a song called “From a Distance” that I loved to belt out in our wood-paneled van (yes, I had an old lady soul even as a child). It seemed like such an inspiring anthem at the time, but with a war in Europe happening as I write, its well-intended lyrics show themselves as a weak solution.

“From a distance the world looks blue and green and the snow capped mountains white…From a distance there is harmony and it echoes through the land…It’s the voice of hope ,it’s the voice of peace, it’s the voice of every man. From a distance we all have enough and no one is in need and there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease, no hungry mouths to feed.”

Though the words sound lovely and the music melodic and though the sentiment seems sweet, the song has no logic upon which to stand.

To simply step away far enough until you cannot see the problem does nothing to fix the problem. Without a transcendent reality, perspective and distance do nothing to help us with war.

What Christianity offers is the unique reality of the Triune God who is both transcendent (other, far off, holy) and immanent (near, close).

A Powerful Name and A Particular Name

I had the people of Ukraine on my heart and in my prayers this week as I was studying Exodus 3 where God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush. It struck me that God identified himself with two primary names to the would-be-deliverer-who-points-to-a-better-deliverer.

When Moses asked God what his name was, he was essentially asking for more information about his nature and character, as name represented so much more than a mere series of letters in his culture. God’s response is both telling and two-fold.

“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Exodus 3:14).

He first identifies himself as the transcendent, self-existing, uncreated One in an ontological statement (a statement of being). But God does not stop there.

“God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’.” (Exodus 3:15).

In addition to the transcendent name, God offers an immanent name. He is God All-Powerful and Self-sufficient, but he is simultaneously the immanent God who has drawn near to a particular people. In fact, he so closely identifies with these people that he choses to include his relationship to the name by which he wants to be remembered and known.

This dual reality is astounding and should rightly lead us to bow our knees in wonder while we lift our heads in hope.

In fact, prior to the conversation about names, God initiated conversation with Moses with two realities. He shows up with a miraculous sign: a bush burning though not consumed. He commands Moses to take off his sandals in light of God’s holiness (his transcendence). Yet, he tells Moses that his reason for such a miraculous sign is an immanent one.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8).

Contrary to Bette Midler, our God offers hope that is solid rather than merely sentimental. Rather than stepping back so far as to blur our broken world, our God stepped into this world in the Second Person of the Trinity.

This is the hope we have to offer a war-torn Ukraine: God sees you, hears you, and leaned into your suffering to the point of becoming the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). He took upon himself the sludge of sin so we could have the presence and promises of God in the midst of our very real problems.

The God of the universe is also the God of his Ukrainian children.

Fully Opened

As the Spring breaths its new life over a weary, wintered earth, things begin to open. Buds bravely begin the process of opening themselves from being tightly bound, exposing themselves to the outside air.

But buds are not the only tightly bound things. Hearts, hands, and souls are also bound and closed. Exposure to the brokenness of the world constricts the soul. Fears tend to tighten hearts in reflexive self-protection; however, exposure to Christ opens the soul in hope, eager expectation, and even a vulnerable love. Continue reading

Ashen yet Adored

Having grown up in the Catholic Church, I grew accustomed to getting ashes smudged on my forehead to signify the beginning of Lent (which is to the Passion Week what Advent is to Christmas). In those early years, Lent meant a chance to get out of classes more so we can attend more masses. It also meant that as we walked in our matching plaid skirts to mass, we all talked about what we were going to “give up” for Lent. There were always the humorous “I’m going to give up homework” and “I’m giving up chores;” however, the more sincere vowed to give up sugar, soda, or television shows.

Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor perfectly captures how I feel about my Lenten experiences in a letter of reflection to a friend.

“What one has a born catholic is something given and accepted before it is experienced. I am only slowly coming to experience things that I have all along accepted.”

For me, Lent was given and accepted long before it was understood or truly experienced. While I am no longer attending the Catholic Church, I am thankful for the liturgical foundation it laid in my life.

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

Ashen

Historically, Lent is celebrated during the 40 days before Easter, mirroring Jesus’s 40-day temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4). Celebration is a strong word, as the purpose of the feast is to prepare our hearts for the coming Passion Week of Christ. Lent is about remembering God’s holiness and our sinfulness; it is about seeing our weakness and needing God’s strength. It is about making space to see to our need for God – the very need for which Christ set his face to Jerusalem.

Lent is typically kicked off by Ash Wednesday. As I have been reflecting on why Ash Wednesday, the Lord has had me thinking about the purpose of ashes in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, sack clothes, shaved heads, and/ or donning ashes were to be outward signs of an inward repentance or grief (Genesis 37:34; Job 16:15; Lamentations 2:10; Nehemiah 9:1).

While our church won’t be smudging actual ashes on foreheads tomorrow evening, we will be sharing about our need to see our sin and to repent.

Throughout the Scriptures, those who see or encounter God automatically both see and despise their sin.

In Isaiah 6, we see the prophet encounter the living God and reflexively say, “Woe ie me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).

In a similar moment in the New Testament, when Peter begins to realize who Christ may be, he responds in a similarly reflexive way.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

After God gave Job the “Come to Jesus” conversation of a lifetime filled with powerful rhetorical questions, Job responds much like Isaiah and Peter.

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:2, 5-6).

In some ways Lent is an attempt to reverse engineer this reflexive response to seeing Jesus. We create time and space to see and identify our sin, donning proverbial ashes and sack cloth. We do so, not to be ascetic, but to help us see our need for the Savior whose death and resurrection we are preparing to celebrate.

Adored

What Isaiah, Job, and Peter did not know in the instances above is that we are ashen, yet we are adored.

Because Christ climbed the hill of Calvary, we are lifted up from our hill of ashes. Because Christ was stripped of his clothes, we are clothed in his robes of perfect righteousness.

In Lent, we make space for the ashes and the sack cloth so we can more fully recognize and rejoice in the salvation that Jesus secured for us through his life, death, and resurrection.

Isaiah prophesied of this reality when he proclaimed, “For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3).

Friends, whether or not you don ashes on your forehead, may you be freshly reminded that you are ashen, yet adored.